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Irvine City Council considers developer's proposal for Great Park

With a large crowd in attendance, discussion drags on for hours over moving forward with long-stalled construction of the Great Park.

November 12, 2013|By Paloma Esquivel

Before a large crowd that packed City Council chambers and spilled outside, the Irvine City Council spent hours Tuesday night considering whether to move forward with a plan that would allow a developer to build 688 acres of the Orange County Great Park in exchange for the right to construct thousands of additional homes around the site's perimeter.

"After a long wait and a 10-year process, we are here to vote on the future of the Orange County Great Park," Mayor Steven S. Choi told the crowd.

But the discussion stretched for hours as city leaders heard detailed presentations from the developer and city staff. By late Tuesday night a vote was nowhere in sight.

Years of spending and setbacks have left the city with few options for building the 1,300-acre park, which was pitched to county voters in 2002 as America's next great municipal park, a place that would rival Balboa Park in San Diego and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Developer FivePoint Communities, which is now building 4,900 homes around the perimeter, proposed constructing 688 acres of parkland, which would include a 188-acre golf course and a 176-acre sports park among other features. In exchange, the firm would nearly double the number of homes surrounding the park to 9,500.

Emile Haddad, president and chief executive of FivePoint, said the plan would give the community the park it has been waiting for at a time when the city simply doesn't have the money to do so on its own.

On Tuesday, Haddad told the council: "We're ready to go," adding, "We feel like this process has been exhausted."

But critics, including the park's original designer Ken Smith, have said FivePoint's proposal abandons the city's vision of a grand municipal park in favor of a quick and inexpensive solution.

The Great Park has been in the works for about a decade, ever since county voters approved it in place of constructing an international airport at the closed Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

In 2005, the military sold the land to Lennar Corp., which struck a deal with Irvine to transfer about 1,300 acres to the city in exchange for the right to build thousands of homes around the proposed park. The home builder also paid the city $200 million in fees to begin building the park.

The city has spent much of the money but has built only about 230 acres.

The real estate crash slowed the building of homes, and then the state's decision to eliminate local redevelopment agencies — the financial engine that was supposed to generate tax funds to continue construction — dealt a crushing blow to the city's plans.

Meanwhile, FivePoint, a Lennar spinoff, moved forward with plans to build homes around the Great Park's perimeter, so it has a seller's interest in making sure that park construction does not stall much longer.

FivePoint's proposal would cost the company an estimated $172 million, $40 million of which would be reimbursed by a special tax on Great Park homes. In addition to a golf course and sports park, FivePoint has said it would build a 178-acre wildlife corridor, 72 acres of agricultural land, 75 acres of woodland and a small upper canyon.

The developer also offered to spend $19.5 million to study building an amphitheater and museums and spruce up undeveloped parts of the park

Among those who gathered at Tuesday's meeting were dozens of families representing the Pateadores soccer club, which has members throughout Orange County. They came to support moving forward with park construction — particularly because the proposal includes a large sports field with lots of soccer fields, members said.

Club member Dianne Silver, a resident of Rancho Santa Margarita, said she voted for the Great Park when it was first proposed.

"There's been so many changes with the Great Park, so many different ideas, so hopefully this will be a definitive way to move forward," she said.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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